The Greater North Dakota Chamber organized a policy summit on Aug. 13 during which one topic of discussion was higher education. The focus was primarily on changing misconceptions and meeting the workforce needs of the state. As a representative of the State Board of Higher Education, Dr. Kevin Melicher discussed a wide array of topics that came up during the hour-long discussion.
“I feel that the biggest misconception about higher education is that we spend money haphazardly. The many facets of higher education, perceptions by our stakeholders, the media and some misinformation or rumors can create these thoughts,” Melicher said.
His presence on the panel was to provide clarity about how the Board works and what the system does. “We are a governance board, setting policy for our system of 11 colleges and universities. The individual colleges and universities run their respective institutions, setting their own budgets, driving their mission to create the best college or university that they can. Our Board’s job is to blend together our system of driven presidents and institutions. This creates many more opportunities for students, economies of scale for the business side of education, and many opportunities to share ideas and thoughts.”
He said a big misconception that many people talk about is the subject of salaries. “We try to make the salaries of the presidents regionally competitive because we want to get the best presidents we can to run our institutions and ultimately lead us to success. Some people don’t see that as a value of education.”
Some members of the panel talked about the necessity of a strong chancellor for leadership purposes. Melicher said he agrees on the need for a strong Chancellor, but that the presidents also need to be strong. The presidents are the ones that drive the show,” he said. “They are the ones that make the university go.”
He said that the system of colleges and universities have their share of challenges ahead and he sees changes on the horizon.
“Our system is in constant flux and needs to grow. Staying still is not an option. Higher education requires constant change, innovation and, of course, money,” he said. “Our presidents need to be trendsetters and on the cutting edge to move their college or university forward using their resources to the best of their ability.”
During the panel discussion, Melicher said that security, technology, housing and food, and student-driven curriculum additions add to the financial pressures. “Growth and change is sometimes like a roller coaster, not a rocket. Higher education is a very competitive business, and we want to strive to be the best.”
He spoke about the necessity of mending stakeholder relationships and building a solid foundation to create a successful system to meet our workforce demands.
“My friends and family have the same concerns and thoughts that many in our state have about higher education. It is my goal, being a member of this Board, to try to explain to them what the positive qualities are. A solid higher education system brings good things not only to their city but to our state, citizens and workforce. In all our cities where colleges and universities are located, the city is the campus and the campus is the city providing a strong educational and financial vibrant pulse to the community,” he said.
He also spoke about some innovative ideas that need to happen to meet tomorrow’s demands today. “It is time to act. I don’t believe we can wait and do more studies on how to attract the workforce our state needs. Jeff Volk, President of Moore Engineering, believes the time is now and said so at one of our new chancellor’s listening sessions. Every year, without an initiative, we are falling further behind.”
He also said he would like to see North Dakota’s public colleges and universities become magnets for out-of-state students. “The two-year technical schools in South Dakota are going to be able to offer no tuition. Just think about that as competition for our state.”
Melicher says he’s been thinking about an idea that he’s calling “Grow North Dakota.” One part of the plan would be to have in-state and out-of-state tuition be the same. “Out-of-state tuition is close to an $11,000 difference in some of our universities,” said Melicher. “And if it was the same, we should be able to attract students from outside our state to come here.” Minot State University already has adopted the tuition program where there is no difference between in-state and out of state students.
Another idea is to give back some tuition to students who graduate on time. He says with thousands of jobs going unfilled, this is a good way to attract and keep people in North Dakota.
He concluded that the strong take away that people should get from the panel discussion is that we are all in this together. “Legislators, board members, college presidents, students, taxpayers, business and industry need to be on the same sheet of music. Earlier in my career on the Fargo School Board, our Superintendent, Dr. Vern Bennett used to say, ‘It is amazing how far we can go if we don’t worry about who gets the credit.’ How true.”